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posted: 1/19/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: Tying state budgets to audit results

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

As much as we decry the spendthrift ways our state government generally works, we also have to acknowledge that there are many in Springfield who try to do their part to control some of that spending.

Take, for example, Fred Crespo, a Democratic state representative from Hoffman Estates. It's always been our impression that Crespo means well, that he works methodically on the little things to try to make a difference.

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Now completing his fourth term, Crespo's risen in the General Assembly hierarchy enough to chair the House General Services Appropriations Committee, which has considerable power over the budgets of the constitutional offices such as secretary of state and attorney general as well as over a variety of non-school-related spending bills.

Once there, Crespo adopted an approach that had almost been unheard of in Springfield: When he considers an agency's budget proposal, he takes a look at how it's done in recent state audits and in particular, how it's responded or not responded to those audits.

If the audit shows problems, the budget request meets with problems too.

There's a lot of sense to this approach. As Crespo says, if you're a manager in private industry, you're penalized if you fail to meet standards or follow protocols, and the penalties become even harsher if the problems are called to your attention and you do nothing about them.

That's not the way it's always worked in state government. While the state auditor general has for the most part operated with great freedom and great energy over the years, the audit reports carry little actual enforcement clout.

The assumption for the most part has been that if the auditor general points out a problem, that's all that's needed, that everybody's trying to do the right thing so somebody will respond to the problem.

You don't have to read too many audit reports to realize that is not a sound assumption, to understand how often the reports are filled with repeated findings -- that is, how often they point out problems that have been pointed out before.

Given all that, we laud the approach Crespo is taking. It makes sense.

But the General Assembly needs to take it a step further. After all, Crespo's committee is only one of five House appropriations committees. What about the others? And what about the rules when the time comes that Crespo leaves office?

We encourage legislators to consider developing an audit formula that in turn could be used to exact a price from those departments that fare poorly. It would be complicated to do, no doubt, but not so complex that it couldn't be done.

A grade-A audit carries one budget consequence, a grade-B audit carries another and a grade-C audit carries another.

The private sector has an expression for it: pay for performance. The idea makes sense for the public sector too.

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